5 vital steps for healing perinatal traumaJul 31, 2021
I have been very privileged to witness many parents recover and even transform after different traumatic perinatal events. Although the context of perinatal trauma can vary for each person the steps towards healing the trauma symptoms that remain are always the same.
The first step is always in acknowledging that the traumatic event, whether it be miscarriage, birth or breast feeding was very stressful, felt very out of control and threatening in some way, AND that it continues to play out in their everyday lives now, in some way. So there is a connection between what happened in the past and what they are experiencing now. Perinatal trauma cannot be healed if it isn’t at first recognised and acknowledged.
Maybe they are thinking about it constantly, maybe they are extremely avoidant of any reminders. Perhaps they feel very angry, ashamed or guilty about what they experienced. Maybe they continue to have nightmares or experience a daily feeling of anxiety and hypervigilance. Many people choose to minimize what they experienced and hide the way it still affects them.
Once a person has acknowledged their own trauma then the next healing step is in having that story heard, acknowledged and validated by a trusted person or professional. This important step gives the opportunity for that person to feel truly heard. So much perinatal trauma is born out of lack of compassion, lack of communication and lack of human respect. In hearing someone’s story without interruption, judgement or critique we meet them with compassion and are able to reinstate their humanity. Creating time to hear someone’s story well say’s ‘you are important, you are valuable, you are worthy’ and that can be very healing.
Another important stage in the healing process is really being able to unpack the ways of thinking, feeling and responding that are in place because of what happened. Again this is often done best with a trusted person or professional but can also be an exercise that can be done alone with a journal and pen. Recognising the ways in which trauma still shows up is the essential first part of being able to transform those feelings, thoughts and ways of responding. Asking ‘how does that still affect you now?’ is also an important way of bringing focus into the here and now. This is especially important because when we are traumatised our minds are fixed on the past, traumatic event. We cannot change what happened in the past but, with support, we can help parents cope in the present and we can ignite hope for the future.
Another essential step is in being able to spark hopes for feeling better in the future. This is where having a skill like solution focused questions is invaluable. By asking parents to imagine the changes that will occur without those ways of thinking, feeling and responding in place, transformation occurs from the inside out. When this is coupled with relaxation and visualisation of that future, it is incredibly changing for parents. I love witnessing this stage of recovery.
From a neurological perspective, trauma symptoms are held in place by neural pathways connecting the memory of what happened to the emotion centre of the brain, the amygdala. Every remembering, every re-telling, every re-trigger strengthens those neural pathways making the connections stronger and effectively holding that person in a place of past pain. This is why talking endlessly about what happened is not recommended. An important part of any recovery from trauma, no matter how old, is to break these neural pathways and create the opportunity for new neural pathways to form. These new neural pathways pave the way for new ways of thinking, feeling and responding to be experienced. Repatterning exercises such a EMDR or Rewind can break these neural pathways quickly and effectively and for many are an essential part of their healing.
Healing from trauma isn’t always linear because life is always happening around us as we try and re-orientate after a traumatic or difficult event. Often it is re-experiencing the trauma over and over that keeps people stuck. Another aspect of trauma and trauma therapy that isn’t often appreciated is how trauma can easily be re-triggered again, even after it has been healed. This is something that parents often experience after a traumatic birth that does heal initially only to be mightily re-triggered when they are pregnant again.
What is needed is more knowledge and consideration of how traumatic events and trauma symptoms lie at the heart of much emotional distress and that left untreated, unsupported, and unresolved can lead to much more serious mental health illness.